1 Hr., 44 Mins.
Death Becomes Her
June 12, 2020
elf-optimization comes with a layer of darkness. We will all to varying degrees of dedication practice it in some way or another — most commonly via monotonous forms of maintenance like face-washing and hair-cutting — until we die. Ostensibly we’re taking care of ourselves. But what is the ratio of necessary to led-to-believe-is-necessary self-care? How often are we just keeping at bay certain
characteristics socially ingrained in us as being unacceptable? I like the feeling of a refreshed face, but I don’t think I would carefully research and be prepared to spend a good amount of money on skincare products if I hadn’t internalized from a young age the idea that a blemished face should be conflated with unattractiveness. And I doubt I would hold up a picture of a celebrity with nice hair during a barbershop appointment if I hadn’t in some way associated a particular look with some sort of hard-to-explain capital I wanted for myself.
Such thoughts sometimes flare up but don’t consume. It’s also safe to say that my experiences are neither universal nor as rife with social pressure as it can be for others. The leads of Robert Zemeckis’ “Death Becomes Her” (1992), in contrast, obsess over self-optimization and maintenance so much that the practices have turned into fully fledged nightmares; the biggest flaw of the movie, which is for the most part fun, is that it doesn’t meaningfully probe the dark reasons why self-optimization is something to obsess over in the first place.
“Death Becomes Her” opens in 1978, at a Broadway show sure to close in about a week. It’s a gaudy musicalization of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” In this version, the lead character, has-been movie star Alexandra Del Lago, has metamorphosed into someone more akin to an outsized personality like Cher. In the production, Del Lago, who is constantly surrounded by a fleet of gay male dancers, is played by Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), also a flagging actress. Everyone in the audience thinks this play, and Ashton, stinks. Seats start to empty just after the opening number begins. Only one person attending, celebrated plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), seems to be having a good time. It’s because he’s gaga for Ashton.
This is exactly what was not supposed to happen. Menville has been brought to the show by his fiancée, mousy would-be writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), who has known Ashton for most of her life as a frenemy. (Ashton has a history of “stealing” Sharp’s love interests; she’s something of a real-life Jolene.) The night out doubles as a “test” proctored by Sharp, who has never dated a man who has passed it. Menville is evidently just another flunkee when a few scenes later, Ashton and Menville are walking down the aisle, Sharp looking on angrily.
Cut seven years into the future. Sharp is newly obese (Hawn wears an ill-judged fat suit) and about to be evicted from her cat-ridden apartment, which she ostensibly never leaves; Menville and Ashton remain apparently happy. (At the end of this sequence, Sharp is taken to a psychiatric hospital, where she realizes that she has become unhealthily infatuated with Ashton and that something needs to change.) Cut another seven years into the future. Now Menville and Ashton are on the verge of divorce. Apparently the latter has totally emasculated the former — now Menville professionally gussies up corpses for open-casket funerals, and has become an alcoholic. Sharp, currently thin and glamorously made up wherever she goes, has written a best-selling self-help book-slash-autobiography and has morphed into a literary celebrity. (She credits diet and exercise for her transformation.)
Ashton has for years now been fixated on staving off the aging process; a little into the movie she tries to get another treatment before the recovery period for the last one is up. Sharp, who is still apoplectic but better able to control her anger, is in the meantime secretly plotting to win Menville back. (Temporarily she will.) Around the same time, Ashton hears about a new treatment framed as a sort of endgame to her self-optimization addiction. The treatment, we learn, is a top-secret potion of sorts that, according to its mysterious, slinky seller — the 30-something-looking but actually 71-year-old Lisle von Rhoman (a great Isabella Rossellini) — will stop “the aging process dead in its tracks and force it into retreat.” Ashton drinks up.
There are a couple of twists in “Death Becomes Her.” One is that Sharp looks so good these days because she, too, has downed Rhoman’s concoction. Diet and exercise were red herrings. The other is that the mixture stops the aging process dead in its tracks and forces it into retreat because it turns its consumer, essentially, into a living corpse. It's really their body and soul stopping dead in their tracks. When Rhoman enigmatically cautions Ashton to make sure to take care of her body, what she means is that if, say, Ashton were to fall down a flight of stairs, she would neither die nor conventionally heal. And if she were to want to drive away a corpse's pallor, she would have to spray paint herself with something found not at a drugstore but Sherwin Williams, because that stuff sticks to a corpse’s skin better than MAC concealer.
whack each other’s limbs with shovels, their parts suddenly as loose as car-dealership Tube men.)
Here, Streep’s and Hawn’s engagingly catty performances are most feral; the notion of self-optimization being in many ways more horrific and exhaustingly Sisyphean than actually beneficial is sharpest; and the special effects, which are aside from the movie’s camp appeal its most famous attribute, become another character trying to steal the show. It has often been said that in their films together, Ginger Rogers did what Fred Astaire did only backward and in high heels. There is a funny moment in “Death Becomes Her” where Ashton, who has broken her neck so severely that she can look down at her butt, is literally walking backward and in high heels.
By way of special effects “Death Becomes Her” is a masterpiece; same applies to the acting, which finds its women leads making a good case that in another world they could easily have done what Joan Collins and Linda Evans did for years on “Dynasty” (1981-1989). Critic Pauline Kael once said that after watching Meryl Streep in something you might remember all the acting she was doing with her face but never with her body. In "Death Becomes Her," Kael's conclusion doesn't stand tall: Streep is unequivocally an adept physical comedienne or is at least persuasively imitating one. She memorably shimmies around like a solipsistic supervillain. When she's meanest, she really relishes it, accentuating the sting of her verbal venom with methodically deployed arm-and-leg twitches.
Before Ashton gets pushed down the stairs by Menville after a verbal spar overheats in one scene, she makes sure to get in one last gleeful insult. When Streep is tasked with calling Willis “flaccid,” she doesn’t just spit the adjective out once — it trickles out again and again, like a succession of increasingly noisy belches, until she’s saying, wickedly and all drawn-out, with her tongue wagging, “flaaaaaaacid!” Ashton is a textbook anti-heroine — a distant relative of Snow White's vain queen.
Hawn is terrific and just as fervent as Streep, though screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp switch up her motivations so jarringly that Sharp doesn’t have a real arc — more so a personality that won’t stop dividing. I think that when used right Willis is a whiz comedy performer; in “Death Becomes Her,” he’s miscast. Willis is effective, but the movie needed someone better at conveying comedic hysteria (which Menville especially gets to when he realizes that these frenemies are immortal and want him to drink the potion so he can do their makeup for the rest of time) who also has limbs that can suddenly seem made of putty. I kept picturing Cary Grant in 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby,” specifically in the scenes where he’s running around, amped up, in a fuzzy pink nightgown, or Tim Curry in his sweaty "Clue" (1985) scenes.
eath Becomes Her is at its best around its middle act — specifically when Ashton and Sharp have realized they’re both indestructible and as such their sparring can be at its most cathartic and violent. (During a showdown at Ashton’s mansion, the latter, who has found out about Sharp’s seduction scheme, blows out her opponent’s torso with a shotgun, leaving her with a donut middle; then the two start to
suddenly frightening, seemingly inescapable, when you think about them hard enough or give too much credence to them. “Death Becomes Her” provocatively acknowledges the obvious — that the pressure to look ageless is much heavier on women (just one characteristic of many contradicting ones to live up to), in itself predominantly based in a capitalist ploy for more spending. The movie additionally gets pretty right how even after we've made a huge gain in the self-optimization process, it's more than likely that it won't feel like enough.
But the very real horrors of "Death Becomes Her" are mostly rendered thinly explored bases to spring spectacle-oriented black comedy off of. In “Death Becomes Her,” Ashton and Sharp are above all characterized as mean-spirited women who want to look good — a character type that might be more darkly funny in a film with a different subject matter and where they are not the leads. The movie mostly delights as a body-horror comedy. It has campy humor for miles. (“Do you remember where we parked the car?” a decapitated Sharp deadpans to Ashton at the end of the movie, after they’ve both fallen down a flight of stairs and their bodies have somehow shattered like China plates.) But that the feature doesn't really engage with the meaningful whys underneath the motivations of its characters takes a lot of the bite away from what can in moments be a biting movie. B
eath Becomes Her is an entertaining movie, but it doesn’t puncture like it should. It’s a satire with trimmed claws. Self-optimization-as-nightmare is a conceit used in plenty of films, and well — ambitious projects “Seconds” (1966), “Brazil” (1985), and “Safe” (1995) among them. They got to or got close to the root, however fleetingly, of why we are so compelled to self-optimize, and why its trappings can feel